Nobody involved with “Peter Rabbit” seems to have been taking it very seriously, which has pros and cons. On the one hand, it’s cheeky and vaguely self-aware, turning the vegetable-thieving rabbit (voiced by James Corden) into a Bugs Bunny type, with a Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who at one point wonders aloud, “Where do [the rabbits] get their jackets?!” (Right?)
On the other hand, the movie (which is live-action except for the computer-generated animals) can’t be bothered to commit to a single, unified approach to its source material. As written by Will Gluck and Rob Lieber and directed by Gluck (“Easy A,” “Friends with Benefits”), Peter isn’t just a smart-aleck, he’s reckless, glib, and callous — not “ain’t I a stinker?” but “ain’t I a sociopath?” The plot is split in two directions, one with Peter and his fellow meadow creatures trying to reclaim their land from the McGregor family, the other with Peter realizing the reason he hates McGregor so much is that McGregor is well liked by his neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne), whom Peter views as a surrogate mother/girlfriend. Peter is jealous and petty, but the movie shrugs it off like, “Eh, this is just some throwaway family movie, whaddaya want from us?”
Bea is an artist who paints pictures of Peter and his siblings (voiced by Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, and Elizabeth Debicki), leading us to infer that she is Beatrix Potter. She loves the rabbits and thinks McGregor should let them eat his garden, though I notice she doesn’t bother planting one of her own. Much of the film’s humor comes from farcical situations where, for example, Peter and McGregor pretend to get along when Bea is around but are at each other’s throats when she leaves the room. That surreptitious war fuels the story, and Gleeson throws himself into the role with abandon. He makes it work.
As Peter, James Corden’s manner is too aloof, too haughty, a Bugs Bunny who makes you sympathize with Elmer Fudd. Knowing McGregor is allergic to blackberries, Peter literally tries to kill him with some and is frustrated when McGregor has an epipen handy. Because unlike the Looney Tunes that “Peter Rabbit” tries to emulate (at times successfully), characters here actually can die. Peter and his siblings’ parents did, as did McGregor’s own father (Sam Neill) at the beginning of the film. Peter was bold enough to claim credit for the elder McGregor’s death, actually, which I find amusing in its audacity. Not appropriate for kids, maybe, but funny to me.
B- (1 hr., 35 min.; )